When my best friend since childhood wound up back on the oncology unit for her third relapse, I decided it was time to start online dating. I knew from Nance’s prior hospitalizations that talking about lymphoma and PET scans was not her idea of fun. A far better entertainment would be for me to get on Match.com so we could hang out together on her hospital bed scrolling through potential dates.
For 42 years, our friendship had been primary. We helped each other through every crisis — her separation, my divorce — along with our everyday worries as mothers. Putting myself back on the dating market for her pleasure was the least I could do. It would be just like what we had done since our shared fourth-grade crush on Tommy H.: having a blast checking out boys.
But there was another reason. I had begun hearing myself say, “This is not a dress rehearsal.” This meaning our lives. After a divorce 22 years earlier and a long post-marriage relationship, I had kept all potential romance light, which mostly meant dating charming but impossible men, not anyone with whom to spend the rest of my life. With Nance’s uncertain prognosis, “the rest of my life” took on new meaning.
“Let’s do it,” Nance said. “You deserve a big love.”
“You don’t deserve this,” I said as her doctor and a flock of medical students crowded into her room.
“Life’s for the living,” she said. “Let’s both get a new protocol for life.”
First, I needed to create a profile. The name I chose for myself? Darkbird9.
“I understand the dark part,” Nance said, twirling my near-black hair. “And 9 is for your birthday. But what’s up with the bird?” She frowned to indicate it didn’t sound alluring.
“I thought it gave me glamour and mystery,” I confessed.
“Maybe if you’re hoping to date an ornithologist,” she said, shaking her head.
She and I composed a straightforward profile. No mention of beach walks. No glasses of fine wine. I said I was a book nerd despite Nance claiming that “nerd” isn’t a tantalizing word on a dating site.
Right away Nance wanted me to “wink” at a cute and much younger guy.
“I’m not winking,” I said. “And I’m not going on dates with men 15 years younger.”
She conceded that that made practical sense, but it was far less of a vicarious thrill for her. Luckily, because thrills on the cancer unit were my immediate concern, messages piled up in Darkbird9’s inbox. It was easy to weed out the unsuitable.
“You’re perfect,” one man wrote. “Marry me.”
“You’d look great in something silky,” another declared.
I didn’t reply to the gentleman who wrote, “I you want date and bring you to restaurant nice.”
It took discipline not to reconsider my ban on younger men, and not just because Nance kept saying, “This is bleak, Vik,” as we scrolled through the age-appropriate ones. There were paunchy men who penned letters tinged with sad, wry hopefulness. And fit guys in tight cycling shirts who asked to take me out between a scuba trip to the barrier reef and training for a triathlon in Utah. Their notes sounded aerobic.
Eventually I scheduled myself for five dates in a week: one at lunch each day, followed by a debrief on the oncology unit.
The next week Nance and I were sitting in an alcove on her floor, the Hudson River glimmering out the window. I was telling her how date No. 1 had proposed a second date as we finished our Cobb salads. As someone who had been online dating for months, he had assured me that our date was pretty much perfection.
A chemo drip in her arm, Nance said, “You don’t have to sleep with him, but would you go out again?”
“Perfectly nice,” I said. “But he’s not for me.”
In fact, the whole dating game seemed more and more like a pathetic diversion.
“Let me look at him again,” she said, tilting the screen.
I clicked on his profile.
“What were we thinking?” she said, wincing. “Show me tomorrow.”
By Wednesday I stumbled back to the hospital exhausted from my whirlwind dating life. Tuesday had been a doubleheader — lunch with one man, coffee with another. One asked if he could call from his business trip so we could keep the momentum going.
“You’re a dating success,” Nancy said, but her boast had no oomph. She was exhausted, too. We were both trying to keep the charade going.
She was tortured by the recurrence of her illness, by being pulled out of her life again, stuck in a hospital and made into a full-time patient. It seemed beyond wrong that I deserved anything, let alone a “great love,” while she once again lost her hair and prepared to endure a stem-cell transplant.
So it was with zero expectations that I waited on a restaurant stoop in SoHo the next day for Mr. Thursday. My plan: Another quick salad and onto the subway. A friend would be joining Nance and me to hang out for the afternoon and evening.
Suddenly a pair of red sneakers appeared beside me on the stoop. I looked up and — oh! — a wonderfully present and handsome face smiled down at me.
“Hey,” he said. “I’m Bruce.” Within moments, at a back table, we were laughing, talking books and children. He was smart, curious and beyond funny, with pale blue-green eyes and a naughty smile. Ridiculously cute. And sexy. Ridiculously.
“This is really great,” I said shyly, returning from the bathroom.
“Yeah,” Bruce said with a shrug. “It’s a great room.”
When I told Nance about this moment, she gasped and said, “No, no,” exhibiting that same protective disappointment as when my high school crush rejected me, as if she couldn’t imagine someone not falling for her best friend.
“Exactly,” I said. “First guy I actually like and he’s clearly not feeling it.” I paused to elevate the drama. “But 20 minutes later, he announces, ‘I wasn’t expecting lunch to go like this at all.’ ‘That’s what I was saying,’ I say. ‘I know,’ he says with a crooked smile, ‘but I got a little freaked out.’”
“Vik, this is the one,” Nance said, radiating a love and certainty that I have basked in since I was 8. Her face, one I knew better than my own, offered absolute confidence. “Trust me,” she said, holding my hand. “This is the one.”
There was a next date with Bruce, and another. And by the time Nance left the hospital, her lymphoma in remission and a stem-cell transplant scheduled, she had proclaimed that I had found my real match.
She was right. I was falling in love with him, open to what might be possible.
But soon the joy of shaping a life with Bruce began to feel like betrayal. How could I fall in love at 50 while my best friend struggled to hold on to her life?
After a successful stem-cell transplant, months of post-transplant quarantine, a hopeful year and a half of health, the disease returned along with new protocols and terrible side effects. Often it felt impossible to create a future with Bruce when Nancy’s life was increasingly compromised. And yet, we did.
It seemed incongruous that our hospital dating game eventually led to the day, 18 months later, that I called her to say, “Bruce and I are getting married.”
“I told you,” Nance said with the know-it-all tone she had bossed me around with since grade school. “This is exactly what was supposed to happen. Now tell me everything.”
I took a long breath and began. Because, forget dress rehearsals or any notion of “deserved,” this was life. And because telling one another everything is what we had done since we were girls, and would continue to do until we couldn’t.
Now, as I wake each morning to a cup of coffee from Bruce and his hilarious morning monologue, I remember how Nance helped me find this late-life surprise. And how Bruce’s strong, clear love helped me through the darkness of losing my best friend.
“Life is for the living,” Nance would say.
I laugh hard at Bruce’s wicked humor, because it feels so good to laugh. And because I would do anything for Nance, even make a life of true happiness without her there to share it.